‘1916: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend?’

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Fans of the late John Wayne will recognise the lines from ‘The Man who shot Liberty Valance.’

In the movie the character played by John Wayne kills the villain but the character portrayed by James Stewart, a lawyer more equipped to the needs of representing the people as the West moves from lawlessness to political and more lawful processes is encouraged to go with the public perception that he is the ‘ hero’ of the community and builds a successful political career based on the myth. But isn’t this the world of cinema?

Manufactured self-image and the manipulation of reality can be powerful tools in the world of public perception and political affairs. History becomes frozen in partisan group identity and denial or the managed representation of events, fuller disclosure of which, may not serve the desired end of justifying the present through a constant re-booting of the past.

Is 1916 a case in point?

Too many homes and families in Ireland were affected by the losses and sufferings of 1916 for events not to be appropriately honoured and acknowledged. However, honour is tarnished if the dead are exploited in the pursuit of sectarian victories and reflected glory. In the end such victories are hollow and those being honoured are belittled through mindless stereotyping and political cliché. Death in conflict is not a commodity to be exploited by predatory politics.

Exclusion and intentional amnesia of history which challenges the tribal geography and interests of narrow politics may prove marginally effective but they are globally irrational and as a practice should not be prolonged by those who have the power to end it. Insight and reconciliation through the past is compromised or missed.

The battle of the Somme was a human tragedy on every level. Many family histories are touched by the losses incurred on the 1 July and afterwards until the offensive ground to a halt. Soldiers who survived the battle continued to suffer and die from the after effects of the injuries and inhumane conditions of war following their return from Flanders.

The many war memorials in churches, towns and villages rightly acknowledge the sacrifice made by men and women from this part of the world. They were from all social backgrounds and creeds.

This is a fact borne out from a visit to the many memorials and cemeteries dotted around the countryside where the trenches in France and Belgium were sited.

What is also apparent is that loss, often the collateral damage of incompetence and expediency, was a shared experience on a global level.

At the Menin Gate in Ypres or the Thiepval monument near the Somme there are names from different regiments drawn from India, Canada and many other areas. This is not exceptional in the history of the conflict.

In the case of Ireland, soldiers in regiments from the USA, Britain, Canada and Australia served alongside colleagues in the 10th and 16th Irish Divisions in addition to the 36th Ulster Division. They saw service and died at Gallipoli, the Somme and Messines in addition to other battles, not least during the final offensive launched by the German imperial forces in 1918.

Is it not regrettable that in spite of some movement in recognition of the sacrifice of men and women from throughout Ireland by the government in Dublin that the commemoration of the Somme remains an almost exclusively unionist event celebrated through the orange tradition informed by the politics of Ireland 1912-1922 and perhaps even of today? By default nationalism has allowed reality to become distorted.

The history of the motivation that prompted men and women in Ireland to serve in World War One is well documented through recorded personal recollections and thoroughly researched commentary. Cleary it was shaped by political events in Ireland but there were also social, economic and individual factors that influenced the decision to serve. Where reasons were varied the experience and costs were less the case and this was true regardless of identity, politics or place of origin. Differences that existed prior to the outbreak of war lost their sharpness in the futility and fatigue of conflict. History as it unfolded may have been less confrontational had this, rather than the desire for different victories at home not driven events. But, the silent had no voice to advice against bloodshed and death.

As Northern Ireland struggles to emerge from conflict against a background of commemorations and attempts to resolve issues more shaped by intransigence than a desire to plot a reconciliatory course do we follow the right voices?

If the more than 3,000 victims could contribute what might they say? Were the deaths and injuries a price worth paying to bring us to where we are?

We acknowledge their death but we fail to measure their loss. If we did so we would find a way but then that might not suit partisan politics.

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. But doesn’t that only happen in the movies?